Monday, January 18, 2010

Bag it Up - Parshat Bo

There are dishes we all like to throw together in a hurry. Some of mine include scrambled eggs and cream cheese when running late for work, chicken with quartered lemons, sprigs of rosemary and peeled cloves of garlic when there is a one hour countdown before Shabbat and a table full of people to feed, and sardines and goat cheese over lettuce with fixins (as my husband calls salad toppings) and some lemon garlic dressing upon returning from work famished and tired. In this week’s portion, Parshat Bo, the whole nation does some hurried and harried cooking when they produce flat breads as they’re rushing out of Egypt.

Picture this. You’re a Hebrew slave in Egypt and you know your buddy Moses has been working on Pharoh to let you and your fellow Hebrews go. You find out that in the middle of the night your buddy Moses gets a distressed called from Pharoh who can’t think of anything else to do about all the Egyptian children dying in the final plague, and tells him, “Get out of from among my nation and go and worship your God as you have been asking for.” All of a sudden your Egyptian neighbors are goading you to leave Egypt hoping it will save them from the plague. You and all your Israelite friends can’t Fred Flintstone your legs fast enough to get out of there before anyone changes their mind.

But you have the thought- what if I get hungry along the way? So you grab that bowl of dough you just kneaded which hasn’t yet had time to rise, and you wrap the bowl in your cloak and carry it over your shoulders on the way out of Egypt. You had no time for any significant tzedah laderech, and it looks like most your friends had the same idea.

You all make it to the outskirts of Egypt. While waiting for the next leg of the Exodus you all bake these unleavened (i.e. un-risen) cakes of dough, aka Matzah. Nowadays your great, great, great, great (etc) grand kids eat that same stuff at their Passover Seders.

The commandment about celebrating Passover, eating Matzah and avoiding any risen bread for the seven days of the holiday to memorialize our freedom appears in this portion right after the whole Matzah making story. Some of you may not be so thrilled with the story’s no bread on Passover conclusion, others may be closet Matzah pizza lovers, or may engage in debates over Matzah shmeared in cream cheese versus Matzah and butter. Personally I can’t get enough Matzah brei (rhymes with eye) over Passover, and I enjoy the first few crunches of shmurah Matzah at the Seder, but I am always jealous of those who have the custom to bake their Matzah in a way that is soft and doughy, probably closer to how the Israelites did it in this weeks Parsha.

If you are ever in Israel for Passover you can find these types of doughy pita breads, or lavash, being sold in the outdoor markets for those who use them at their Seders. While I wish my family did, alas we hail from Eastern Europe and stick only to the crackly stuff. But I can enjoy this type of fluffy home made treat year round, and am especially looking forward to doing so this Shabbat. Note that the recipe I use involves considerable rising time to get those pitas as puffy as possible, which is not how those who eat lavash on Passover make them, nor is it very much in the spirit of the weekly portion. So if you're pinched for time, or feeling in the mood to be truer to the text, go ahead and skip the rising process, the pitas will still be delish.

I have made pita/lavash a number of times at home (both with a rising time and without), and love the smell that pours out of the kitchen when I do. I feel a sense of accomplishment as the warm stack of white flour colored discs with a few delicious charred spots grows higher as the cooking goes on. Sam and I enjoy the pitas with home made shwarma (which we make by chopping leftover turkey and frying it in a pan of oil and middle eastern spices) or spiced ground beef and chumus when we're missing Israeli fast food. You can also incorporate some aromatic spices and herbs into the pitas themselves. I’m going to try adding crushed garlic and rosemary to some of mine this time around. And I might use them in place of Challah at my Shabbat meal. Try the recipe below and if you can reheat them a bit before serving on Shabbat I think they will taste like when you first made them- steaming with the smell of carbs and haste. I’d love to hear how they turn out for you!

The recipe I use came from a tall cookbook by Marlena Spieler titled Jewish Cooking that my Aunt gave me 5 years ago. It’s the kind of cookbook you can find at Borders - with the wonderfully large and colorful food photographs that really entice you to make a dish, and that often illustrate part of the cooking process. It’s the perfect kind of cookbook for me since there isn’t a single recipe in it that doesn’t have a corresponding photo (and as I have previously revealed, I mainly choose the recipes I attempt based on pictures). As a plus it has a nice section at the beginning on Jewish history and Jewish foods.

Pita or Lavash

Adapted from Jewish Cooking by Marlena Spieler

Lavash is simply a longer, pocketless pita. The pitas in this recipe generally come out pocketless. This is best cooked in a cast iron or a grill pan (or over the grill if you happen to have access to one in the winter). Feel free to cut out the rising time.

4.5 cups of flour
1 packet of yeast (rapid rise)
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup of water
Optional spices such as fresh garlic and rosemary

Combine the flour, yeast and salt in one bowl. In another large bowl, mix together the oil and water, then stir in half the flour mixture. If you want to add spices, such as the garlic and rosemary I suggested, now is the time. Knead in the rest of the flour and shape into a ball. Cover the bowl with a damp dishtowel and leave in a warm place for 30 minutes to 2 hours (depending on your time frame).

After it has risen, knead the dough for ten minutes. If you have time, cover and let it rise again. If not, divide the dough into 12 pieces for nice round pitas, or fewer for larger longer lavash. Dip your hands in to some flour to keep them from sticking to the dough and flatten each piece with a rolling pin or your hands. Try to keep the pita ½ an inch thick. Keep the dough that you aren’t working with covered.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Wait for it to get smoking hot and then add one of the pitas and cook for 20 seconds (cook the lavash for slightly longer). Turn it over with tongs a cook for 1 minute on the other side (again, longer for lavash).

When large bubbles form on the bread turn it over again and watch as it puffs up. Press down gently with a dishtowel, and then cook for 2-3 more minutes. Remove from the pan and wrap the pita in a dry dishtowel. Repeat with the remaining dough, adding the finished pitas to the stack in the dry dishtowel.

Serve hot and moist!

P.S. I made a big batch of granola this weekend with the recipe from a few weeks ago - this time with cashews, craisins and apricots.


  1. I didn't know that you make your own pita. I've always wanted to give that a try. I can't wait to see the pictures. (And if I'm lucky, the real thing?)

  2. If youre lucky : ) Don't get me wrong, I also buy pita from the store (especially when I want ones with pockets). But it's a special treat to make it at home, and I must say pretty easy. Thanks for always commenting here Jess, you make me smile!

  3. Mmm, your homemade granola looks delicious!!! Great post this week, Elisha! Keep 'em coming :)

  4. Thank so much Alexis. The granola is very yummy - and easy! I think it's cheaper to make it at home than to buy it in the store (and you have more contol over the fat content), but it does disappear rather quickly : )